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Conflict Resolution: It’s Your Job

A few years ago an article reported that the one thing employees most wanted in the new year was for managers to resolve disputes between staff members more quickly. Seems as if they still do. The articles keep coming.

Staff conflict is a significant threat to team and general business success, and one that a leader must address no matter how uncomfortable that might be. However, staff conflict is often the hardest part of the job for many managers, including those in very senior positions, especially if the disagreement includes interpersonal elements, such as different work styles or personality clashes. I have seen cases where some people are so intent on undermining others that they will destroy the whole unit to have those people lose their jobs, even if it means losing their own jobs as well!

Here are a few ways to address these disputes that might reduce the discomfort involved.

First, reframe the disagreement from something interpersonal like work styles or personality to a disagreement about policy, business goals or procedures. This reframing removes the intense personal nature of the disagreement, defines it as an issue you have every right and responsibility to address, and provides a chance to reinforce business goals. Often these disagreements seem to be about small things like time sheets being late, but the bigger issue is getting payroll out, billing clients, billing for reimbursements — in essence, making the bottom line. It’s immaterial that one person is “more organized” than the other or that they are not fitting in; those are not the issues. The issue is business success, and if you move past the interpersonal, then others will have to follow or be considered unsuccessful.

Second, even though you may have redefined the disagreement, stay on top of it to ensure that the people involved don’t go back to their disagreeable ways or don’t start sniping at each other even though the surface issue has been addressed. Micromanaging isn’t the answer either, but staying in touch with the parties, asking for updates, and calling group meetings on a regular basis are ways to get people to work together and not ignore the need to cooperate. For a while, these group meetings and follow-ups should occur weekly because they reinforce the idea that your attention will continue to focus on the issue. Increased time between meetings allows for disagreement to build again, and any progress made might be lost. This approach also builds collaboration and reduces turf wars as you continue to stress business need and success.

Third, be sure the people involved understand each other’s role and tasks so that they understand more fully the impact of their behaviors on each other’s departments and staffs. Watching the work necessary to manage the information on a time sheet might demonstrate the negative impact when it’s late, not only on an internal process, but on the bottom line. A senior administrator in the field periodically might spot an unrecognized barrier to submitting documents on schedule and find a more convenient way to manage that task. When one organization realized that communications with clients was highly inefficient, they switched to a simple and no-cost email program that removed that inefficiency in no time. And they found a way to get more information about clients that allowed them to provide better service as well.

Fourth, perhaps the most important suggestion for addressing disagreement among staff members is to improve your own communications and conflict resolution skills, and then model the behaviors of thoughtful listening, issue identification, and collaborative decision-making that you would like to see others adopt. One reason people avoid addressing difficult issues is that they are afraid that they don’t have the skills to do it well, and if they are worried about a lack of skills, then they are probably right to worry. Take a mediation course, take a course in management communications, get a business or communications coach, read a few books on the topic, check out youtube – whatever – but find out how to improve your conflict resolution skills.

It’s really not that hard. Learning a few basic and key skills will give you the confidence to set boundaries for what behaviors are tolerable in your workplace and address those that are not.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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